Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Plague, by Albert Camus

This is one of those books I was supposed to read in high school. I think I may have been assigned it for either year 11 or 12, I can’t remember. My Penguin copy was printed in 1984, when I was in year 11. Right throughout my copy it has passages underlined in black pen, sections obviously singled out by my English teacher at the time.

While this is a finely written book, in a straight forward style, I can’t imagine a 16 year old being able to master its themes. No wonder I never read it back when I was a teenager. Even more daunting, I can’t imagine being a teacher and having to teach it. You’d have to closely read it three or four times. If I was assigning books for school kids to read in this day and age, it wouldn’t be the works of French existentialists. I’d look more to English classics like Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Or even Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest. At least they’re more fun.

The Plague was an absolute joy to read. I loved the neat, fastidious prose. Every sentence I found gripped my attention. The story basically tells of how a large French port on the Algerian coast, Oran, succumbs to the plague. Firstly the doctor, Rieux, walks out one morning and steps on a dead rat. (All the references to rats made me thing of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published a few years after The Plague.)

This is a bad omen. Suddenly more and more rats are dieing, until it hits plague proportions. From the rats it goes to humans. (It is worth remembering that at the time of the great plagues they didn’t realise that it was through rats that the plague was passed to humans, only much later was this discovery made.)

The book then sets out all the psychological stages that the people go through with regards to the plague. Firstly people don’t pay enough attention, and just go on like nothing has really happened. Then it hits the newspapers. Then there are the thousands of cases that begin to be reported, the daily tallies of death. How people cope etc.

As I was reading I wondered how much Camus relied (if at all) on Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague years, in my opinion a superior novel on the subject of the plague. Interestingly, Camus prefaces the novel with a quote from the preface to the third volume of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Defoe’s novel brilliantly catalogues all the manias of the day in eighteenth century England when coping with plague.

This is a fine and absorbing psychological study of coping with rampant sickness, disease and death. There was not a page that didn’t keep my complete attention. The writing style is much to be admired as well; the book could have been written yesterday. It is one of those books that, after having read it, you feel like you have not absorbed properly all it had to say, and will need to read again. Bravo!

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